This is a super deep question about true identity. Most people live in delusion as they are not aware of their true nature. To realize one’s own true nature is the greatest experience in the world.
Whatsoever can be watched is completely separate from you. You can watch both your body and mind. The “I-awareness” is neither your body nor your mind.
Your “I-awareness” (also called “I am” awareness) is completely separate from your body and your mind. The ‘I-awareness’ is the name of the Self (also called being, Spirit, Truth, absolute consciousness, Reality, energy, and atman in Sanskrit). The expression, “I AM that I AM,” denotes the Self. This Self is an immortal core of every human being.
You can say the body is your outer shell and the mind is your inner shell. Both your body and mind can be called non-Self (also called ego-self). For example, you say, “I am hungry,” that is your wrong identification with your body. The body is hungry, the “I-awareness” is not hungry. It is the “I-awareness” that becomes aware of the hunger.
When one falsely identifies the Self with the body or the mind, one fears death and suffers from hundreds of miseries. This false identification of the Self with the physical body and the mind can be removed through meditation or a persistent inquiry into “Who am I, really?”
This ‘I’-awareness” is ever-present as an underlying reality throughout your mind’s three states of consciousness — waking, dreaming, and sleeping. Just as a screen in a movie theater is the permanent background on which moving images appear and disappear, the “I-awareness” is the permanent background upon which all the three states of the mind come and go. That which is real must be real forever. This ‘I’-awareness” is real.
Am I the body?
Fundamentally, the physical body is made of the five basic elements of Nature: earth, water, fire, air, and ether. The hardness of my body is due to earth; the fluidity is due to water; the warmth that I feel in my body is due to fire; movement is due to air, and space is due to ether.
The “I-awareness” is totally separate from the physical body for the simple reason that “I-awareness” is what perceives the physical body. I cannot be what I perceive. For example, when I look at a picture, I cannot be the picture. The very mention of the word my—my ears, my nose, my eyes, or my hands—proves that “I-awareness” is separate from my physical body. The physical body does not say: “I am.” It is “I-awareness” who says, “This is the physical body.” While the physical body changes from infancy to old age, “I-awareness” always remains changeless.
The body is like a vehicle. If the physical body falls away, there is no loss of the ‘I’-awareness” at all. The fact is that the body is yours, you are in the body, but you are not the body. The body is not you!
Am I the Mind?
The mind, called Antahkarana in Sanskrit, is comprised of willing, thinking, feeling, reasoning, fearing, and desiring. Just as a microphone is an instrument, the mind is an inner instrument that you use.
Even though the mind is connected with the physiology of the brain, it is not a product of brain. The mind has its own existence completely independent of the physical brain. The mind survives the death of the physical body, thus accompanying the soul on its onward journey.
Just as you can observe the movements of your physical body, so also you can observe the happenings of your mind. The observer cannot be observed. Whenever your mind becomes agitated, know that the “I-awareness” is not agitated at all.
What is your experience in deep sleep? There exists no mind in your deep sleep state — there were no thoughts, yet you were present then. Upon waking up, you remark, “What a deep sleep I had!” Who was awake during the dreamless sleep state to report the experience of such a deep sleep? This proves that “I-awareness” must have been present during the deep sleep state.
When we speak of “my mind,” we are really referring to the mind as an internal instrument that exists apart from the “I-awareness.” For example, a man who is operated under anesthesia experiences no pain even when his stomach is cut open by a knife. In spite of the patient’s mind becoming unconscious during the surgery, the innermost Self continues to keep his physical body alive. From this, it logically follows that the “I-awareness” exists independently of the mind.
Truly, the mind is yours, you are not the mind.
The presence of the “I-awareness” is essential to activate the body and the mind but this presence merely acts as a catalyst agent. To understand this, think of how water is produced. When producing the water from hydrogen and oxygen, the electric current merely serves as a catalyst agent; it does not enter into the water. Similarly, your “I-awareness” remains completely separate from your mind.
“To stand outside the body and mind,
Is the way to peace of every kind.”
— Swami Rama Tirtha (1873 –1906)
If you’d like to learn more, and for an account of spiritual experiences, I suggest the book Play of Consciousness by Swami ‘Baba’ Muktananda (1908-1982). Explaining what a firm faith can do, Swami Muktananda said, “I receive so many letters from people who were reading Play of Consciousness and received shaktipat from the book. They put the book against their hearts and began to meditate.”
I would also suggest a book I wrote myself, called Building a Noble World. In this book, you will find my own experience of Kundalini awakening: transcending physical body and mind and experiencing absolute reality. I also answer questions about body, mind, and Spirit as well as the fundamental truth we all share.